Purveyor of Bollocks to the Crowned Heads of Europe
Sunday, 18 November 2012
Just for a change, I went to the pub last night before going home and cooking, and was greeted by a mate of mine who scratches a living by selling fresh oysters from a rickshaw at the local farmer's market.
It has been a few years since I had an oyster or two, but I used to quite like them and eat them as often as possible. His were fresh from Brixham, but being the end of the day, he was shelling them out for £1 a go, right in front of us and on the bar. I had two, with a little squeeze of lemon on each.
It always seems a waste to simply swallow them, because if you chew them, they leave a wonderful, lingering aftertaste which cannot - thankfully - be washed away with beer, and also I much prefer to try to kill the thing in my mouth rather than let it die a lingering death in my intestines. The taste of a good oyster can conjure up the ocean almost as efficiently as the 'Dawn' passage of 'Peter Grimes'.
I wondered how many oysters had been consumed in the early 18th century coaching inn we were sitting in, but I guessed them to be thousands, if not hundreds of thousands. Two to three hundred years ago, oysters were the food of the poor, and if those coachmen could come back and witness me paying forty shillings for two, then they would surely choke on their small beer.
Daniel Defoe noted in his survey of the British Isles that the quickest way to initially assess the wealth or poverty of a town was to count the amount of oyster bars to be found in it's high street. Rather like charity shops today, the more oyster bars, the poorer the town.
I have demolished and re-built many 18th century stone walls, and - unlike the Victorians - the Georgians would often cheat with their masonry by 'feathering' the joints from front to back, giving the impression that the nice, tight, 1/8th of an inch thick joints on the front continued the full six inches to the back of the wall, the blocks having been cut dead square. In fact, they used to cut the beds of ashlar at an angle, so that the back joint was about three times as wide as the front, just to save a bit of time and effort.
When the mortar was wet, this caused the blocks to want to lean backwards, putting the face out of plumb, so in order to build up three or four courses in a day, they needed to wedge the back with something. What did they use? Oyster shells.
Being the food of the poor, oyster shells were in great abundance. They were also perfect for the job, because the flat underside of the shell was the perfect thickness for a wedge and it also crushed in the right direction - if at all - horizontally. The very stuff that oyster shells are composed of - calcium - also bonded perfectly with the surrounding lime-putty mortar and actually improved the set, rather than retarding it as a piece of impervious slate would.
The off-duty bar-maid sitting next to me was French, and I wondered why she did not partake of any oysters along with the rest of us. As a side note, I decided this morning to refer to all the bar-maids who worship me in my local as 'groupies', since - when not pouring me beer - this is the function they seem to fulfil in my life, so from now on you will know what I am talking about.
I asked the French groupie why she was not eating oysters, and she said that she had never tried them. Never tried them?! French?! She explained that her father was allergic to them, and her brother had eaten one once to discover that he had inherited his father's allergy. Having watched both of them vomiting and groaning in bed for a few days, she wisely decided that she did not want to find out if she too had inherited the allergy, so had never tried them.
She ordered a packet of crisps, then - to my horror - picked one up and moved it toward my pint of beer so she could dip it in before eating it.
When she had picked herself up from the floor (I haven't lost my old speed of reaction), she explained that the French dip everything into anything that is eatable or drinkable - like bread into hot chocolate for instance - so she saw nothing unusual about dipping a greasy, salty crisp into a pint of clean beer. Well, she didn't have to drink the beer afterwards, did she?
Another member of staff poured her a demi into a champagne glass, and she dipped away in her own beer, unmolested by me. Takes all sorts, I suppose.